MT Expert: To be or not to be a great leader

Theatre, film and TV can help you improve your leadership, says Robbie Swales of drama-based training provider Steps. Here are a few leadership lessons from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

by Robbie Swales
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013
The ultimate leadership lesson is given in the ultimate play. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the character Polonius provides the definitive advice for any leader when he says: ‘To thine own self be true’. Ironically, in the play, almost no one is true to themselves, with the result that there is ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’.

Shakespeare brilliantly illustrates the consequences of a lack of personal integrity. As the protagonist, Hamlet is initially shown as an intelligent, thoughtful man who appears to have everything: success, power, respect, a woman who loves him and whom he loves. The play could easily be a simple tale of a young prince achieving his destiny but Shakespeare deliberately twists the plot to give us a more sinister portrayal of the dark side of human nature.

When Hamlet sheds his personal values (to seek vengeance for his murdered father), he loses everything, becoming a monster tortured by doubt and procrastination. Shakespeare hammers home the lesson that when you lose your values - and when you scheme and deceive for selfish gain - things have a habit of rebounding back on you.

In case the subtlety of this point was lost on anyone, Shakespeare makes it crystal clear that there’s a strong moral to be learned from this story. In Act III, Hamlet tells a troupe of actors who are staging a play that the ‘purpose of playing’ is to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’. In other words, the very function of drama is to reflect back man’s virtues and vices through a theatrical mirror.

Drama-based training utilises this very technique: using actors to bring behaviours to life in front of a group of delegates, holding up a mirror to behaviours and workplace situations that present challenges for individuals and teams. This approach is used widely in global leadership development programmes to effect behavioural change. For example, to instil a sense of inclusive leadership by encouraging leaders to respect and value diversity.

To take a wider view, any form of drama - whether it’s theatre, film or TV - has life lessons for all of us. Drama bombards us with images of leadership dilemmas and examples of good and bad leadership practice, each of which is a potential leadership development opportunity.

Take Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator. He leads by example, in heading the initial cavalry charge on the enemy. He resolutely sticks to his mission and, throughout the film, he retains the respect of those around him. When he’s in the arena, he stays calm under pressure and he successfully unites and motivates the gladiators to become a fighting force.

Much can be gained by watching other ‘leaders’ in action in this way. What would you do in their situation? What impact did their behaviour produce? Is that what he or she intended? What can you learn from this scenario?

The value of drama is that it encourages you to consider your own response. It doesn’t tell you to behave in a certain way. It shows you the impact of different behavioural options and leaves you to make a final choice of how to behave to create the best outcome. Absorbing the leadership lessons from drama could therefore help you to decide whether ‘to be or not to be’.

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